They will know we are Christians by our love
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between social justice and Christianity.
The strange thing about this is that if you asked a Christian if Christianity and social justice were compatible, they would probably give you a funny look for asking such a silly question because of course Christianity and social justice are compatible…you know, since we’re supposed to be following Jesus and looking after orphans and widows and all that. But if you were to ask your typical, secular social justice activist if Christianity had any place in their activism, they would also probably give you a funny look because their answer seems equally as obvious. Christianity, the oppressor of all oppressors, the colonizer of all colonizers, the pedestal of privilege that gives the White man his unwavering arrogance and sense of superiority? Christianity, the religion that kills people of color and oppresses women and hates gays? That Christianity?
Well, that Christianity — the largest, whitest, and most privileged religion on this planet — has no place amongst activists working for the rights of marginalized peoples. And as for Christians? Well, some of them might be nice people, but not much more than that.
I’m an evangelical Christian. I include the word “evangelical” not as a denominational identifier, but because it reflects who I am and how I live as a Christian. I evangelize. My entire life is dedicated to proclaiming the truth of the Gospel to all nations and living a life that is supposed to help others draw closer to God. I believe that the only way to eternal salvation is through Jesus Christ. I believe that true righteousness is impossible without God. I believe that the Bible is very clear on what is sin and what isn’t, and I believe sin kills.
I am everything that a secular social justice activist detests.
When I started educating myself on critical race theory, I didn’t have Jesus in mind. Whenever I entered the social justice community and engaged myself with activists who shared my ideas about racism, I shut off my Christian identity and pretended it didn’t exist. I did this for two reasons: firstly, because I didn’t want to be accused of being a hypocrite — not by other Christians, but by activists who might question my decision to continue following a religion that they considered to be oppressive, misogynistic, intolerant, ignorant, and selfish.
But this first reason pales vastly in comparison to the second: I chose to ignore God because I didn’t want to admit that I was making activism my idol. From time to time I would feel little pangs of conviction reminding me that I was spending so much of my energy social justice warrior-ing it up on the internet, but so little of it on God. I would show anger, hate, and impatience to people I considered to be racist oppressors, all the while pushing aside the annoying Sunday School-esque reminders that I was to love my enemies unconditionally. It was so easy to be prideful of my own intellect. It was so easy to be angry and unapologetically hateful.
I looked at the activists around me and saw how empowered they were. I saw how much they needed to be empowered in order to raise themselves out of the unfair, systematic oppression wrought upon them against their will. I engaged with Asian-American activists whose stories of being bullied and harassed due to their race and culture seemed so similar to mine. These activists were real people with wounds that still bled, and they were finding incredible ways to bind up those wounds and fight back. They listened to me, understood me, and took me seriously. God never did that for me. Christians never did that for me.
I dove into anti-racist activism during a very low point of my life. It was my sophomore year of college — I was depressed, and my spiritual life was virtually nonexistent. I was angry. I was sick of being wrong and sounding stupid. But social justice made me feel right and smart and good. I could throw daggers with my words without apology because I was aiming at oppressors who deserved it. I never had to answer back to these oppressors because I was always right and they were always wrong. History was on my side. Check your privilege. Don’t tone-police me.
Things got better after sophomore year ended. I found ways to deal with my depression, and my spiritual life was slowly putting itself back together again. My relationship with God began to mend, and for the first time in my life, I started to realize what God’s character is truly like.
At this point in the story, one might expect that I would throw away social justice for good, burning it in the fire just as God commanded the Israelites to burn their idolatrous Asherah poles. And it’s true; something had to give. I couldn’t continue to worship social justice — and my own pride — as an idol. More importantly, I needed to realize and submit to God’s sovereignty. I needed to realize that God was bigger than a human creation like social justice could ever be. I needed to remind myself that God is in control.
But here’s the thing, though — this only caused me to be even more passionate about fighting racism, because this time, I was seeing it through a God-shaped lens rather than as a crutch for my own insecurities and pride. God cares deeply about racism, and He cares deeply about social injustice more than any human ever could. More than that, God understands how it feels to be oppressed and hated for who He was. How? Because He died for it on a cross.
Racism is a sin. Oppression is a sin. When Jesus died, not only did He die a painful physical death, but He died a spiritual death by bearing every single human sin on his own shoulders. He experienced the pain of every single one of those sins personally. He felt the agony of Vincent Chin‘s death at the hands of white men armed with baseball bats, and He felt the pain of his grieving mother. He felt the embarrassment of every kid who’s ever been called a chink or a gook or any other racial slur. He felt the injustice of being denied opportunities and rights because of who he was. He felt the shame of abuse and exploitation. He knows. And He cares, because He paid the ultimate price for it. Because He loves us.
If we claim that God is a loving, personal God who hates sin and hates to see His people get hurt, then we cannot claim that God doesn’t care about oppression or inequality. We cannot even claim that God takes these things lightly, like Pastor Rick Warren did in the screencap embedded at the top of this post.
The picture at the top of the post is an image that Rick Warren posted on the Facebook page of Saddleback Church, where he serves as the senior pastor. It’s a picture of a piece of Mao-era propaganda depicting a member of the Red Guard, a symbol of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution persecuted over 36 million Chinese and killed 1.5 million.
Rick Warren posted this picture with the caption: “The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.”
He was criticized by other Facebook users for his decision to post the picture and caption, to which he responded:
People often miss irony on the Internet. It’s a joke, people. If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me. Did you know that, using Hebrew ironic humor, Jesus inserted certain laugh lines – jokes – in the Sermon on the Mount? The self-righteous miss them all while the disciples were undoubtedly giggling.
After widespread scrutiny by Asian-American Christian pastors and bloggers, Rick Warren eventually took the picture down from the page without much fanfare apart from a “sorry you were offended” non-apology. But the damage was already done. Countless numbers of Chinese and Chinese-American Christians have read the Chinese translation of Rick Warren’s bestselling book. Many of us held him in high regard as a spiritual leader and discipler. Now what are we supposed to think?
I am not angry at Rick Warren. He knows that he offended a group of people, and he apologized for hurting them. But I don’t think he really understood the degree to which he hurt these people. I don’t even think he understood why these people were so hurt and offended at all. Neither did all the other white people on his Facebook page laughing at the “joke” with him and praising him for his sense of humor. Should they apologize for something they don’t understand? Wouldn’t that make their apology even more meaningless and insincere?
I don’t think the secular social justice community cares much about what Rick Warren did, because to them, Rick Warren is just another ignorant, evangelical white male who doesn’t understand that he’s done something wrong and isn’t interested in listening to someone who insists that he has. The secular social justice community has every right to dismiss Rick Warren as another privileged white dude who isn’t worth their time.
So who ought to take responsibility for Rick Warren’s actions?
Many have argued that the Christian community desperately needs to have an honest conversation about racism. I don’t think that’s good enough. Racism is an extremely “outward” issue, but “honest” Christian conversations about race tend to point strictly inwards. White Christians don’t see themselves as racists, because the American evangelical Christian church conforms strictly to the secular, conventional, American definition of racism. The conventional, “dictionary” definition of racism is more synonymous with “prejudice” or even “immaturity” than it does with its true connections to power, oppression, and privilege. Did you hear that? We settle for society’s definition of what racism is, and we don’t dare ourselves to go any further and pursue greater holiness. Whatever happened to not conforming of the patterns of this world?
Secular anti-racism activists can easily tell you what the real meaning of racism is and why it is different than simple prejudice. They can tell you how complex it is and how difficult it is to overcome. They can tell you how power imbalances and unchecked privilege can ruin societies and destroy people. They can tell you, from their own personal experience, why real racism hurts. They can tell you why reverse racism doesn’t exist. They can tell you these things and explain to you, to Rick Warren, to all the white Christians who don’t or can’t seem to get why racism hurts the majority of the human population. (Hint: the majority of the human population is not white.)
If white Christians had the humility to consider that even their brothers and sisters of color in Christ suffer from significant social, political, and economic disenfranchisement solely because of their race, they would be able to see that there is a lot more brokenness within their own churches — let alone their own societies — than they might think.
But Christians aren’t willing to venture out into the Liberal La-La Land that is social justice activism because it’s scary, unfamiliar, or worse, “ungodly.” This follows a flawed belief that Christians should not take advice from anyone except God and other Christians, and that Christians have absolutely nothing to gain from listening to the thoughts and ideas of non-Christians. This brand of self-righteous arrogance needs to stop. It assumes that we, as flawed humans, know exactly where and how God works, to the point where we are so self-assured in our assumptions that we are unwilling to seek God anywhere outside of the places we already “know” he is at.
The Christian church is in desperate need of internal racial reconciliation. If we as Christians are conscientious of the fact that Christians can be some of the most horribly and unapologetically racist people in this country, why do we choose to turn a blind eye to it — to sin — instead of trying to bring healing and redemption to our own brothers and sisters? We are so bold in our willingness to care for the orphan and widow, but we can only do it by traveling to a third world country and flexing our white savior muscles? And when Christians of color call out white Christians for their racist or offensive behavior, we are ignored, ridiculed, or seen as being divisive. Our church has gotten to a point where one of our most prominent and respected pastors thinks that racism is a joke. Is this what the body of Christ has become?
Listen. When a person of color is telling you how racism affects his or her life, listen. Do not take it lightly; do not try to invalidate it with your own stories of experiencing “reverse racism.” Listen. Listen.
Likewise, the anti-racist activist community is in desperate need of redemption. This is a strong, passionate, and intelligent community with a heart for justice unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. But it is also angry, bitter, and full of hurting and broken people. This is not an invitation for Christianity to “take over” and seize control of an “unsaved” people. It is an invitation to love and to listen. Only after we have humbled ourselves to this community and listened to what they have to say, and only after we have earned their trust and an invitation to work alongside them — only then can we even think about collaborating with them and working to bring redemption both internally and externally. But we must love and listen first.
Christ needs to be at the head of social justice activism. His church needs to follow. One could argue that critical race theory and feminist theory is nothing more than a pile of left-wing crock not to be taken seriously. That could be true. But there’s one thing that God takes seriously, and that we, as His chosen people, are commanded to take seriously as well: the welfare of His people. Our church and our world is broken along racial lines. Pray for healing. Work towards redemption.